Though unattested in secular records, the slaughter of the innocents is a historically plausible event consistent with the character and actions of Herod the Great. Herod killed his enemies, family members and friends and would not have given a second thought about killing infants in order to secure his throne.
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah,weeping and loud lamentation,Rachel weeping for her children she refused to be comforted, because they care no more.” Matt 2:16-18
Herod the Wicked
Herod was crowned “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 BC in Rome. Upon his return to the Land of Israel, he was given a Roman army and was eventually able to capture Jerusalem. Mattathias Antigonus, his Hasmonean predecessor, was executed with the help of Mark Antony. Herod also killed 45 leading men of Antigonus’ party in 37 BC (Antiquities 15:5-10; LCL 8:5-7).
Herod had the elderly John Hyrcanus II strangled over an alleged plot to overthrow him in 30 BC (Antiquities15:173-178; LCL 8:83-85).
Herod continued to purge the Hasmonean family. He eliminated his brother-in-law, Aristobulus, who was at the time an 18 year old High Priest. He was drowned in 35 BC by Herod’s men in the swimming pool of the winter palace in Jericho because Herod thought the Romans would favor Aristobulus as ruler of Judea instead of him (Antiquities 15:50-56; LCL 8:25-29; Netzer 2001:21-25). He also had his Hasmonean mother-in-law, Alexandra (the mother of Mariamme) executed in 28 BC (Antiquities 15:247-251; LCL 8:117-119). He even killed his second wife Miriamme in 29 BC. (Antiquities 15:222-236; LCL 8:107-113).
Around 20 BC, Herod remitted one third of the people’s taxes in order to curry favor with them, however, he did set up an internal spy network and eliminated people suspected of revolt, most being taken to Hyrcania, a fortress in the Judean Desert (Antiquities 15:365-372; LCL 8:177-181).
Herod also had three of his sons killed. The first two, Alexander and Aristobulus, the sons of Mariamme, were strangled in Sebaste (Samaria) in 7 BC and buried at the Alexandrium (Antiquities16:392-394; LCL 8:365-367; Netzer 2001:68-70). The last, only five days before Herod’s own death, was Antipater who was buried without ceremony at Hyrcania (Antiquities 17:182-187; LCL 8:457-459; Netzer 2001:75; Gutfeld 2006:46-61).
Herod the Great became extremely paranoid during the last four years of his life (8-4 BC). On one occasion, in 7 BC, he had 300 military leaders executed (Antiquities 16:393-394; LCL 8:365). On another, he had a number of Pharisees executed in the same year after it was revealed that they predicted to Pheroras’ wife [Pheroras was Herod’s youngest brother and tetrarch of Perea] “that by God’s decree Herod’s throne would be taken from him, both from himself and his descendents, and the royal power would fall to her and Pheroras and to any children they might have” (Antiquities17:42-45; LCL 8:393). Prophecies such as this would certainly have lead to Herod’s paranoia and desire to eliminate Jesus when the wise men revealed the new “king of the Jews” had been born. (Matt. 2:1-2)
Macrobius (ca. AD 400), one of the last pagan writers in Rome, in his book Saturnalia, wrote: “When it was heard that, as part of the slaughter of boys up to two years old, Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered his own son to be killed, he [the Emperor Augustus] remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig [Gr. hys] than his son’ [Gr. huios]” (2.4.11; cited in Brown 1993:226).
Why No Record?
1. Josephus may not have known
Josephus, writing at the end of the first century AD may not have been aware of the slaughter in Bethlehem at the end of the first century BC. Curiously, there are important events in the first century AD that Josephus failed to record. For example, the episode of the golden Roman shields in Jerusalem which was the cause of the bad blood between Herod Antipas and Pontus Pilate (cf. Luke 23:12). It was the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria that recorded this event (Embassy to Gaius 38:299-305; Maier 1969:109-121). It should also be pointed out that Josephus got some of his information from Nicolas of Damascus who was Herod the Greats friend and personal historian. Nicolas may not have recorded such a terrible deed so as not to blacken the reputation of his friend any more than was necessary (Brown 1993:226, footnote 34).
2. The slaughter may not have been as far reaching
The Martyrdom of Matthew states that 3,000 baby were slaughtered. The Byzantine liturgy places the number at 14,000 and the Syrian tradition says 64,000 innocent children were killed (Brown 1993:205). Yet Professor William F. Albright, the dean of American archaeology in the Holy Land, estimates that the population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth to be about 300 people (Albright and Mann 1971:19). The number of male children, two years old or younger, would be about six or seven (Maier 1998:178, footnote 25).
3. Josephus may have missed the importance
Paul L. Maier has pointed out, “Josephus wrote for a Greco-Roman audience, which would have little concern for infant deaths. Greeks regularly practiced infanticide as a kind of birth control, particularly in Sparta, while the Roman father had the right not to lift his baby off the floor after birth, letting it die” (1998:179).
Josephus, even if he knew of the slaughter of the innocents, may have deemed this episode unimportant in light of other monumental events going on at the time of the death of Herod the Great, thus not including it in his writings.
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